The Smoking Poet

Feature Artist: Jeff Abshear

Feature Artist: Jeff Abshear
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Jeff Abshear at Kalamazoo Book Arts

The Beauty of the Irregular, the Bliss of Slowing Down

by Zinta Aistars

(Originally published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media)



Others grow flowers and vegetables in their gardens. Jeff Abshear went into his garden to grow books. It turned out to be a very good year to grow books.

 "I was unemployed in 2005," says Abshear. "I called my friends to come to my garden to brainstorm."

Ideas filled the air, and one idea in particular took seed. Abshear was an artist with a dream, and his friends, a group of artists and writers, helped him grow his idea of putting to use vintage printmaking equipment he’d found. One friend, Paul Alvin Robbert, became a founding member alongside Abshear in the development of the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center.

Today, Kalamazoo Book Arts Center (KBAC) is a local treasure found at the Park Trades Center, Suite 103A, 326 West Kalamazoo Ave.--one that is fast building a national, even international reputation for printmaking, paper making, letterpress, book binding and creative writing.

KBAC opens its doors to all who have a passion for books. The Center offers exhibits, classes and workshops, a gallery, literary events featuring guest and resident artists, a book arts store, a library, and events to celebrate the book, such as the annual Edible Books Festival (April 6 this year), featuring books made out of food that are eaten soon after being judged for prizes, and in May, The Illustrated Accordion, celebrating the art of accordion-style books.

Abshear is convinced that the meticulously handmade books created at KBAC resonate that much more in this age of electronic books and fast expanding technology.

 "It is the beauty of irregularity, rather than the monotony of technology," he says. "So many people spend the day at work staring at a computer screen. At the end of the day, they want to put their hands on real materials. With a handmade book, it’s more human, more intimate."

Abshear himself is not Kalamazoo homegrown. He came to Michigan from California, journeying overseas on the way. "I can divide my life into thirds," he says. "One third in San Diego, where I grew up, one third in Santa Barbara, where I had my undergrad years, and one third in Kalamazoo, where I came to grad school--and stayed. I’m in Kalamazoo for the long haul. It’s the right place, the right time."

He says he loves to read, but his heart belongs to visual arts. A few floors up in the Park Trades Center, he keeps an art studio of his own. There, he paints and creates lithographs. Some of the broadsides on exhibit at KBAC are his creations.

Abshear traveled overseas as a Fulbright Research Scholar. He worked in Venice, Italy, at the Accademia di Belle Arti, where he studied the history of Italian printing, bookbinding, and papermaking. He continues to return to Italy every year to teach children book arts, and he accompanies students from Western Michigan University on study abroad programs.

"I came to Kalamazoo to study fine arts at Western Michigan University," he says. "And I now teach book arts at WMU part time." Abshear built a letterpress studio at the university, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts. Some of that equipment eventually made it to KBAC, and the Center and WMU often work on collaborative projects. Interns from WMU as well as Kalamazoo College work at KBAC.

"The printing industry has gotten debased over the past 100 years," Abshear says. "It all got cheap and fast, using acid paper. But books are meant to give us the pleasure of holding and handling them." When you pick up a handmade book created at KBAC, Abshear says, "you know it’s something special. You read it slowly, take your time, like reading a wedding announcement."

KBAC publishes limited edition books, creating no more than two or three per year, with 50 to 100 copies of each book. "Three books in one year is pushing it," he says. "We have the next five planned, so we are not open to submissions right now." In this respect, Abshear says, he has no intention of growing the business. A handmade book is not to be rushed.

The public agrees. Classes in paper and printmaking fill up quickly, and this year KBAC added an extra class in creating pop-up books to accommodate burgeoning interest. All ages participate--during the school year, three-session classes are offered to school children, but in summer, classes for children run six weeks.

Poets in Print is a series that includes readings by poets with broadsides of their work available for purchase. Broadsides are visual art created around a piece of creative writing, poetry or prose, on handmade paper, suitable for framing. While books and broadsides are available for purchase, readings by the poets are free and open to the public. A schedule of upcoming events with samples of broadsides may be viewed at KBAC.

"Book arts aren’t necessarily a new idea," Abshear says. "Interest began in the 1970s when the printing industry left behind printing equipment. Artists took it up from there. Minneapolis was the beginning of the rebirth of handmade books. When artists opened a book arts center in the crime-ridden downtown and joined with nonprofits, other businesses moved in, a library opened nearby, and the downtown began to flourish."

KBAC is funded in part by grants from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. As a nonprofit organization, KBAC accepts donations from individual donors and members as well as organizations.

"It’s working," Abshear says with a smile. "We are on the circuit now. Others in the book arts are looking to us, watching what we are doing here."


two on a bench.jpg
Two on a Bench by Jeff Abshear

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